Guest Blog: Everything You Know About Concert Photography is Wrong by Jacob Blickenstaff on June 10, 2010

Soul Artist Lenis Guess taking the stage with peach

If you are a music photographer, I hope this post will agitate you a bit: Everything you know about concert photography is wrong.

1 – Shooting Big Bands in Big Arenas = Success

Shooting Coldplay or Jay-Z means you are a big deal, right?

I think that most concert shooters are in a very limited situation and don’t realize it. The bigger the show, the more restrictive the shooting conditions are. You might be stuck in the back of the room shooting from the exact same angle as 15 other photographers for 2 songs. On top of that, you might be pressured to sign legal restrictions to what you can do with your own photos. What fun is that? And what opportunity do you have to do something creative?

It’s a numbers game: the more popular the act, the more coverage already exists.  For every popular band on a national or international tour there are probably 15 photographers at each show on a tour of 20 cities. That means 300 sets of very similar images exist on stock sites and archives that are charging already low fees for usage. This oversupply further erodes the value of the work.

How do you differentiate yourself and make unique work that has a higher creative and commercial value?

Shoot shows, bands, scenes and people that on a gut level you find interesting. New York, LA and smaller towns like Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, etc. all have great local scenes where it’s possible to photograph on a more intimate level. Finding a band and documenting it in their formative years can mean more unique, interesting, historically valuable and therefore commercially valuable images. It might take several years for images to emerge as unique, but you will be the only one with them.

Forget about Metallica and Wayne Coyne in his plastic bubble. It’s over. Buy a ticket, leave the camera at home and enjoy the show.

2 – Peak Action Shot = Best Image

The guitar jumpshot. The close up of a singer wailing into a microphone. The moody back-lit guitar shot filled colored light and smoke machine fog.  This is what makes good music images, right?

We’ve all seen it a hundred times, it’s cliché, and it doesn’t say much about what makes the music unique. Without context, nuance and a creative viewpoint of the unexpected moments, music photography becomes stylistically repetitive and boring.

Yes, shooting a 3-song window with stage lighting can be limiting and you have to cover the basics if you are shooting for a client. But keep an eye open for the revealing gestures that happen between the pyrotechnics. If the angle looks boring, move around, look at the crowd, go with your gut, experiment with exposure and push yourself to refine your images past ‘good enough’ towards exceptionally unique.

3 – Music Photographer = Music Fan + Camera

Obviously photographers who devote themselves to music have a great appreciation of it, but you can’t let being a fan come in the way of being a good photographer.

Respect for the subject is fundamental (ask the late Jim Marshall) but idolization can breed saccharine, sentimental and corny images. It also can take your concentration away from seeing the show.  I’ve watched many ‘photographers’ bopping around, singing along, cheering and partying while they miss great shots.  Sure, a show is fun and exciting, but be a professional and put the passion into the images.

If  you move into portraiture it is important to have the guts to be a creative peer to the subject and not a fawning acolyte. Fans are people that a musician will smile and take a snapshot with. A confident, respectful and appreciative photographer is someone a musician will open up to, collaborate and work with. That attitude can begin with how you approach a live show.

4 – The Photo Pit is the Alpha and Omega

In my experience (and as the name implies) the photo pit sucks and I try to do everything I can to get away from it.  To shoot a live show, it often can be the best seat in the house but with the 3-song rule, security and publicists breathing down your neck, and a dozen other knuckleheads in there with you, I feel more like livestock than a respected creative professional.

Music, being a musician, is a much bigger experience than the first 3 songs of a live show. It’s a shame how sterile and calculated the whole affair has become.

Other things to shoot:

  • Sound check
  • Dressing Room happenings
  • Back Stage hang-out
  • Recording sessions
  • Radio In-studios
  • Rehearsals
  • Everyday life at home
  • Life on tour
  • Portraits…

Access is about trust, relationships, reputation and creative skill combined with a tempered ego and hustle. You may think that getting this kind of access is difficult but it’s more about getting over the fear of asking for it, accepting a little rejection and being patient. There is no intimacy or connection with the subject when you are blasting away in an anonymous mob of ‘togs in a photo pit.

If you are driven to dig a little deeper, the creative rewards of these experiences will make the pit even more unpalatable. I promise its true, but I can’t promise it will be easy.

Jacob Blickenstaff is a music photographer in NYC and guest blogger at The Photoletariat. He works with Daptone Records, Norton Records, The Ponderosa Stomp, Lincoln Center, NPR Music, The Fretboard Journal among many others.  Follow him on twitter @jblickenstaff and @3313photo

This is part 3 of a 5 part series.

Part 1 – Intro – Why Music Photography Has Value

Part 2 – Estimating the Promotional Portrait



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